November 07, 1977 12:00 PM

Like countless U.S. immigrants before him, Frank Wiebe had a dream. “All my life I think about the time when I would have my own land,” he says in heavily German-accented English. “We wanted to live here where the laws are good, and we could make one big family and educate our children in the way we believe is right.”

Wiebe, 25, is secretary of a closely knit community of nearly 450 Mennonites. Earlier this year they settled in a desolate corner of the west Texas prairie, 20 miles from the town of Seminole. The newcomers proved to be ideal neighbors—peaceable, self-reliant and honest. Yet through a series of apparent misunderstandings, compounded by their own innocence of modern society, Wiebe and the others may see their hopes cruelly shattered.

Disappointment, unfortunately, is at the heart of the Mennonites’ heritage. Since the founding of their sect in Europe more than four centuries ago, they have been forced to migrate from country to country in search of a permanent refuge. Militant pacifists, they refused conscription wherever they wandered, and many made their way across the Atlantic after World War I.

More than 50 years ago Mennonites established a colony in Mexico’s Chihuahua state, where Wiebe was born. Eventually, however, the settlers began to be plagued by bandits and squatters. Wiebe and others emigrated to Canada, where steep land prices forced their community to scatter. Then last year word started to circulate among the brethren that land was plentiful and cheap in west Texas. The barren, windswept landscape hardly seemed promising. But a scouting party came, saw and pronounced the land workable—nothing wrong with it, they decided, that irrigation and hard work couldn’t fix.

Pooling their resources, the Mennonites raised $445,000, enough for a down payment on 10 square miles of their Garden of Eden. Wiebe and his wife, Susan, chipped in $14,000, their entire life savings, to get started on 160 acres of their own and to rent another 400. Wiebe and some of his neighbors say their bishop, 48-year-old Henry Reimer, had assured them that their 30-day U.S. visitors’ visas could be renewed repeatedly, and that in five years they would be American citizens.

Then disillusionment set in. First the Mennonites discovered that oil companies controlled most of the water rights in the area and that irrigation would not be permitted on much of their land. Though a lawyer is now negotiating on their behalf, relief will come too late for Frank Wiebe’s maize crop, which has withered in the parched Texas climate.

More ominously, Wiebe and the other Mennonites received letters this summer from the government informing them that visa renewals were not automatic and that they would have to leave the country or be deported. In desperation the settlers sought advice from Seminole Mayor Bob Clark. “The more I heard, the madder I got,” says Clark. “These are not worldly people, but they’re fine people. It looks to me like somebody misled them.”

Mobilized by the mayor, the outraged community has risen to the Mennonites’ defense, and the deportation deadline has been rolled back to January. President Carter and Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen have offered help. Still, the settlers’ fate is uncertain. “If we have to leave we will,” Wiebe says with resignation. “But I do not think we do anything wrong. All we want to do is work and be citizens of this country. If they let us stay, this will be a new land. It is nothing but dust now, but someday you will see.”

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